Fall 2010

Field Notes

Virtually unknown here, fonio is a popular grain in sub-Saharan Africa. Corbis Images

Usually nothing too exciting happens when you’re out walking the dog. But for Jeremy Foltz and Sara Patterson, pets spawned a partnership that might help improve incomes and nutrition on the other side of the world.

“We’re neighbors. We met walking dogs. Zazie and Murphy are now good friends,” explains Foltz. “That’s an important part of this collaboration.”

As their dogs got acquainted, so did Foltz and Patterson, who discovered that they both work in CALS. Foltz, an associate professor of agricultural and applied economics, studies adoption of new agricultural technologies. Patterson, an associate professor of horticulture, focuses on plant development and genetics.

Those are seemingly disparate disciplines, but the two scientists found a point of convergence in a grain crop with the odd name of fonio, which Foltz learned about while doing economic development work in Mali, in western Africa.

Subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have grown fonio for centuries, and for good reason. It’s a cousin of crabgrass and just as tenacious, able to grow in arid, nutrient-poor conditions and yield a fine grain that’s high in protein, gluten-free and delicious.

“Wealthier people in the city will pay a premium for it, so it’s a way to transfer some income to poorer people,” Foltz explains.

Also, very important in famine-prone Africa, fonio is ready for harvest during “the hungry season”—that uneasy time of year when most crops aren’t yet ripe but most of the previous year’s crop has been consumed.

But fonio’s yields aren’t what they could be, partly because of a trait called early seed shatter, which causes the ripe grain to fall to the ground before it’s harvested. As a result, a third of the potential yield is lost.

When Foltz heard about this, he immediately thought of Patterson, whose lab has researched cell separation processes including early seed shatter.

“Early seed shattering is a problem in many crops,” Patterson explains. “It’s part of the natural developmental process. It helps plants reproduce. Many of the wild progenitors of today’s major grain crops, such as wheat and oats, have the same trait. Early humans selected [varieties] for delayed seed shatter.”

Patterson is now growing fonio on campus, using a combined breeding and molecular approach to find ways to extend the time between full seed development and when the head shatters.

“There has never been a concentrated breeding effort for fonio,” she says. “We think we can select for better varieties.”

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